Death of a farm lad: Part 2 – The Killing House

Nunney Castle

The unexplained and gruesome death of 17-year-old Thomas George in Nunney made headline news across the country, including The Times and the Spectator.

This article contains graphic descriptions of violence.

The Market Place in Nunney. Thomas George and his family lived in one of the houses on the right.
The Market Place in Nunney. Thomas George and his family lived in one of the houses on the right.

As the London Evening Standard of Wednesday 14 August 1850 put it: “The only mode of making this case understood is by a narrative of the facts, as the case only rested upon circumstantial evidence.”

Murder as entertainment

unknown broadside B20071 75
Murder sold newspapers for the Victorians.

Luckily the Victorian obsession with murder means that we have very detailed newspaper coverage of the trials. From this we can piece together the circumstances surrounding the murder, although coverage is often wrong, contradictory and confusing.

In 1842 Punch magazine joked: “We are a trading community, a commercial people. Murder is, doubtless, a very shocking offence; nevertheless, as what is done is not to be undone, let us make our money out of it.”

Murder was one of the great entertainments of the 19th century – not just fictional murder, but real murder. Plays were written and performed even before trials started.

Street peddlers sold broadsides and ballads on cheap printed sheets providing the public with all the gory details. For the more prosperous, Staffordshire pottery figures were produced.

Victorian murder coverage didn’t care much for the finer detail of a case, unless it was gory. The killing of Thomas George certainly was.

Russells Barton

Nunney Bridge
Victim and suspect lived on either end of Nunney Bridge.

Thomas George was about 17 years old. He lived with his parents in Nunney, on the corner of the Market Place and Russells Barton. He worked for the Hoddinot brothers – Sidney and Simon – at Manor Farm, next to Nunney Castle.

Suspected of his murder was Henry Hillier, 30, also known as Henry Ashford or Axford, who also worked for the Hoddinots.

“The evidence established a case pregnant with suspicion, yet was entirely circumstantial and not conclusive,” one newspaper warned. “The only mode of making this case understood is by a narrative of the facts.”

The murder of young Thomas George made headlines across the UK in 1850.

The 1851 census shows the Hillier family living at Under the Arches, the little lane of cottages that used to lead from Horn Street to the Primitive Methodist Chapel (both the cottages and the chapel were demolished in the 1930s). The Ashford’s were neighbours.

According to witness statements in court, however, Henry lived in a cottage close to Manor Farm (according to newspapers “prisoner lived about 50 yards from the cart-house” and “the bridge [which] was between the house of the prisoner and that of the father of the deceased”), possibly in Castle Street – although he is not listed there in the 1851 census.


Kingfisher Cottage NunneyOn the night of Wednesday 3 April 1850 Thomas George left work with his father at around 6.30pm. Henry Hillier left work at about the same time.

Thomas and his father went home. Joseph went straight to bed and left his son downstairs talking to his mother. The boy washed and changed clothes, as he usually did, and went out again around 7pm.

Mary, the mother, would later testify that Thomas and Henry had a habit of hanging out together.

Thomas was heard talking to Hillier and others in the shed next to his parents’ house. He was last seen there just before 8pm.

Shortly after 8pm Thomas was seen walking across Nunney bridge, with Henry watching. That was last time Thomas was seen alive.

Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 18 April 1850
Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 18 April 1850

The shed “next to his parents’ house” was described in more than one newspaper report as ‘the killing house’. “He was heard talking in a small slaughter house which adjoins his father’s house about half past eight,” The Morning Chronicle of Wednesday 14 August 1850 said.

There were at least five butcher shops in Nunney at the time, but few slaughter houses – or ‘killing houses’. One that was still referred to locally as ‘the killing house’ until recently was located on Russells Barton.

Frederick Hillier, a 23-year-old Nunney labourer, recalled: “On the evening of 3 April I was in the killing house, next to the George’s house. I left there a little before 8pm. The prisoner and deceased were there, and four or five more boys.”

Alfred Jones, who worked for a Mr Brown, saw Henry and Thomas and some other together in the killing house too at around 8pm.

If this was within earshot of the family home and they saw Thomas crossing the bridge, it suggests that the George family lived on the corner of Russells Barton, Church Street and the Market Place, either in what is now called the Pink House or 1 The Market Place.


Nunney Castle
Unfortunately, we don’t know in which of the barns around Nunney Castle Thomas George was found.

His mother sat up waiting for him till midnight, after which she went to bed. At three o’clock she woke his father up, and told him of his son’s continued absence. At five the father got up, and went out to look for Thomas.

Because the boy had on former occasions slept in the cart-shed when he had been out late, the poor man went there to look for his son.

Henry Hillier, Thomas George and others had a habit of occasionally sleeping in the outhouses at Manor Farm. It was therefore normal for Joseph to search for his son there first.


As soon as he walked into the cart-shed, he found a body laying on its left side on top of a hurdle, a piece of fence, in a pool of blood.

The head was bent under the shoulder, and the face was so much covered with blood. Joseph was so startled by the sudden sight that he rushed out of the shed without realising that the dead body was that of his son.

nunney tithe barn
There are two large ancient barns at Manor Farm, both on private land and not open to the public.

The first person he met was Thomas Hillier, who was lacing up his shoes at his cottage door.

“I believe he had his hat on,” Joseph George later told the court. “Six o’clock is the time he would have to go to work at the farm. There are several houses, besides the prisoner’s, near the cart-shed.”

“As soon as I saw him, I said: ‘Hen, for God’s sake come up, for Fred is beat almost to death’.”

When we went back to the cart-shed together, Hillier immediately recognised the body, and said, ‘It’s poor Tom; he’s cut his throat at last’.”


James Charlton, another young farm labourer, told the court later that he too had seen the dead body just before 6am on the morning of 4 April. His testimony is puzzling.

Eliza Derrrick
Eliza Derrick (1834-1915) was just one of several Elizas born in Nunney and of roughly the same age as Thomas George.

“On the 4th of April I was at the shed on Mr Hoddinot’s farm. Henry was there and Tom’s father. Henry Hillier was there crying, and saying ‘Tom George had cut his throat’. He also said: ‘Let us look for what he did it with’. Henry had before said: ‘It’s all through Eliza’, meaning what Tom had done. This was in the shed.”

Who was Eliza? There were lots of girls called Eliza or Elizabeth in Nunney at the time.

Had Tom killed himself after a girl broke up with him? Or was Henry planting a story? Had they been rivals in love?

James continued: “Henry searched under the body. I saw him take a knife off a gore of blood on the first hurdle, and ask Tom’s father: ‘Is this Tom’s knife?’ and he said it was. It was open. There was no blood on Tom’s right hand or sleeve. Henry moved the body first. The knife was found in the same place where he looked for it. The smock-frock was lying straight down, and quite smooth as if it had been pulled down.”


Frederick Hillier, however, told the court: “On the following morning I was on the road leading to Mr Hoddinot’s farm, and Henry asked me to come and help him, for Thomas George was up in the shed, with his throat cut.”

“I helped to move the body out of the shed; the prisoner also helped. We looked for the knife with which deceased’s throat had been cut, but did not find anything.”

Joseph went home, and when he returned, the body had been brought out on the hurdle on which is had been lying.

When cross-examined, Frederick remembered that the knife was picked up only when the hurdle was brought out. Who wasn’t telling the truth – or was it simply a case of poorly remembered details?

Bloody print

The George at Nunney
An inquest was held on 5 April 1850, probably in the function room at The George at Nunney (left).

“I saw that there was no blood on the hands of the body or on the sleeves of the smock-frock,” according to Joseph George. “The body was brought to my house, and my wife’s sister washed it in the afternoon. We had before examined it: the neckerchief was cut in three or four places.”

“His smallclothes (breeches) and waistcoat were both unbuttoned; the watch pocket had been torn off. On the outside of the right-hand pocket of the small-clothes was the bloody print of three fingers, and on the inside of the left hand pocket there were also marks of blood on the flap.”

An inquest was held, usually in the larger of two function rooms at The George at Nunney, the next day, 5 April.

Unfortunately, the coroner would not allow any surgical investigation for fear of not getting the expense reimbursed by the magistrates. Without it, the jury at the coroner’s inquest returned an open verdict (“Found dead”) on how Thomas had been killed – suicide or murder.

Surgeons examine the corpse

Thomas George's death certificate (1850)
Thomas George’s death certificate (1850) states: “Throat cut but by whom no evidence”.

That Sunday, 7 April, Edmund Cockey, the medical officer for Nunney, examined the victim when he was already in a coffin – four days after the murder.

Even with the limitations of not being able to examine the body fully, he quickly established that there was no way Thomas George could have killed himself.

There was a gash in the forehead, above the left eye, about 1.5 inch long and right down to the bone. “It appeared to have been inflicted with a heavy, blunt instrument,” according to Cockey. “I found that the bone was fractured.”

“The immediate effect of such a blow would be to stun the person receiving it, and, most probably, it would ultimately have produced death. In my opinion, this blow was given before the throat was cut.”

The fact that the body was found in a pool of congealed blood, but had no blood on the smock-frock seemed to confirm that Thomas was already unconscious when his throat was cut.

Another cut was found in the cheek half an inch deep. There were two large cuts to the throat, each almost four inches long. The victim’s gullet, windpipe and carotid artery had been severed and there were two cuts to the spine bone.

Thomas George death (1850) 4
Detail of Thomas George’s death certificate (1850)

The cuts were so violent that the knife had scraped the bone at the back of the neck. The effect was that the head had almost been severed.

According to the death certificate, the cause of death was “throat cut but by whom no evidence”.

Cockey also found a wound on the left temple, which had fractured the skull. This appeared to be from a blow to the head that would have knocked the young victim out. He concluded that this had to have happened before the boy’s throat was cut.

Thomas had been stabbed before his throat was cut. The first cut would have killed the boy almost instantly, which made it impossible for him to have inflicted the second himself. This effectively ruled out suicide.

19th century smockfrock as traditionally worn by boys and men in rural parts of England. (collection © Victoria & Albert Museum, London)
19th century smockfrock as traditionally worn by boys and men in rural parts of England. (collection © Victoria & Albert Museum, London)

The clothes of the victim were rifled. The fob was taken off. There were bloody finger marks on the outside of one pocket and one the inside of the other.

There was no blood on Thomas George’s hands when he was found. As quoted earlier, Joseph testified: “I saw that there was no blood on the hands of the body or on the sleeves of the smock-frock.”

Cockey applied to the coroner for permission to examine the body properly, but did not receive any instructions.

The following day – the day of the funeral -, he did a post-mortem examination after all at the request of friends and relatives of the boy. He was assisted by Mr Giles, a surgeon from Frome.


An application was made to the Home Secretary for the aid of an officer of the newly-formed Metropolitan Detective Force, to investigate the circumstances of the case. The request was granted.

Detective Inspector Jonathan 'Jack' Whicher was one of the original eight members of the newly-formed Detective Branch.
Detective Inspector Jonathan ‘Jack’ Whicher was one of the original eight members of the newly-formed Detective Branch.

The Metropolitan Detective Force was set up in 1849, so this would have been one of its very first investigations. The Force consisted of just two detectives and six sergeants.

Investigators concluded that whoever committed the murder had first felt one pocket for the knife, and had then taken it from the other pocket.

The victim’s smock-frock, an outer garment traditionally worn by rural workers, was laid perfectly smooth. His hands were straight down.

The surgeons were of the opinion that the boy had met his death as a result of violence inflicted by someone else, and had not killed himself.

Henry Hillier was taken into custody on suspicion of murder and remanded for ten days.


At the time the body was brought out of the cart-shed, his father thought that Thomas had committed suicide – as Henry Hillier had suggested. Joseph had been keen to find the instrument with which his son had killed himself, and Henry found Thomas’ knife near the spot where the body was found.

Out of superstition this knife at first put in the coffin, and the blade was broken so that it could not kill again. It was later produced as evidence in court.

Thomas – ‘Tom’ to his friends – George was buried in Nunney on Monday 8 April 1850. There is no record of where his was buried in the churchyard.

The same day a second man, named Phillips, was arrested on suspicion of having been involved in the crime. It is not clear from the newspapers whether this was Frederick Phillips, 23, an assistant to his father John – a butcher and widower, or his brother Robert, 19, a farm worker.


On the night Thomas disappeared, Henry met a man called William Whittaker, 29, a farm worker from a poor background who lived with his mother and sister on Frome Road.

Whittaker also worked for the Hoddinot brothers, just like Thomas, Henry and Joseph. Whittaker came to Hillier’s cottage for supper that night as he waited for his master’s horse to return from a visit outside Nunney.

Whittaker would later testify that Henry had told him three times that he wanted to go to bed, until Whittaker finally left.

At the Crown Inn

Crown Inn Nunney
The Crown Inn, in the Market Place in Nunney (now residential).

Henry Hillier next went to the Crown Inn in the Market Place in Nunney, where he asked landlady Harriet Noble, 49, widow, to ask his brother Solomon Hillier, 20, of Horn Street (Frederick Hillier’s brother), to step outside for a moment.

Solomon Hillier told the court: “In consequence of an intimation from the landlady of the inn at Nunney, where I was drinking in the taproom on the night of the 3rd of April, I went out to the door where I found the prisoner [Henry Hillier], who told me not to go on the farm to sleep that night, for that master had kicked up a row, and said he would shoot any one whom he caught there. He said he had come over on purpose to tell me this.”

“I worked with deceased [Thomas George] and prisoner. I did not notice how the prisoner was dressed. He had never cautioned me as to lying in any outhouses of the farm except some time back, when master kicked up a row about it. I slept there the night before this happened. I have slept there with several people. It was no my intention to have slept there that night.”

When cross-examined, Solomon Hillier admitted that he had slept in the cart-shed the night before 3 April.

In the Magistrates Court

When the murder case went to trial in the Frome Magistrates Court, it turned out that the Hoddinots had made no complaint about people sleeping in the outbuilding that year.

Henry Hillier made his first brief appearance at the Frome Magistrates Court on Monday 8 April, the day of the victim’s funeral. The session was adjourned until the next week.

He was held in custody and brought back before the Rev. G. Rous and a full bench of magistrates on Thursday 18 April 1850.


Nunney Castle
The horse and cart used to come through the river at the duck flats.

It turned out in court that Henry Hillier had also gone to Joseph and Mary George’s house that night at around 9pm. He spoke to Mary, who later told the court: “He came and asked whether my husband knew that he was to go dunging tomorrow. I don’t recollect him coming up ever before to ask my husband about work.”

Until the modern-day sewage works where built along the Nunney Brook, raw sewage was collected in a tank behind the castle and taken from there by horse and cart through the brook to be distributed on the fields around the village.

It was a most unusual request from Henry, because Joseph had no authority to tell him what to do. The dung cart was kept in the cart-shed where the body was found the next morning.

Mary asked him if he had seen Tom. “He said he had not, since he saw him at the killing-house door, which adjoins our house.”

At home

Nunney c1900
Nunney c1900

The next thing we know of Henry Hillier’s whereabouts that fatal night is that he came home around 10.30pm. He was a married man.

His wife had been a widow with a 13-year-old illegitimate son, William Charlton, who slept in the same bedroom – as was common at the time.

The boy testified that he saw Henry come to bed just before 11pm, and that the smock-frock he wore had a good deal of blood on it.

“On the 3rd of April, when I got home from work, at half past 6, found mother and prisoner, whom I call father, and William Whittaker, were there – they were at supper. I went to bed, leaving the three downstairs. My mother came up for the baby.”

“I went to sleep, and woke about half past 10. I did not hear any clock strike while I was awake. I heard two persons speaking, mother and father, and another voice, sounding like that of Phillips. After than I heard some person go out of the house.”

“I woke in the night, heard my father come up to bed. My mother came up just behind him. When they came into the room, my mother asked Henry to tell her where he had been, and he said he would not. She asked him twice, and he gave the same answer.”

“He had a smock-frock on. I observed a little blood on the sleeves and on the bosom. I knew the smock-frock. It is one he borrowed off Sophia Hillier (Henry’s sister). He took off the smock and threw it under the bed.”

“The next morning I woke up before my father. I saw my mother carry the smock-frock downstairs, and when I got down, I saw her fetch out a pan of cold water. She did not do anything with the pan and water while I was there. The smock-frock was dirty when I saw it.”

“I told my Master what I had seen about a week afterwards. I told Thomas Porch before him sometime the same week. I did not hear of any Coroner’s Inquest being held.”


Nunney Castle

After the boy had made this statement Henry Hillier was given a chance to examine him. Under pressure, William confessed that the story he had told was false and said that his master and Tom Pitman had made him do it.

The Judge: “Did you see any smock at all when your father came to bed on this night?”
Witness: “No, I did not.”

Henry Hillier’s defence lawyer Mr Edwards suggested to prosecutor Mr Phinn that, after this evidence, it would be useless for him to continue the case.

Phinn asked the judge what he thought, explaining that would be unable to make out any case without the testimony of this witness.

The judge retired from Court, and when he returned said that he had discussed the matter with his brother, whom he had fully acquainted with the facts of the case. They had both agreed to continue the case since there was still some further evidence to consider.

No trace of blood

Henry’s sister Sophia Hillier gave a statement that seemed to support the boy’s false statement, however: “On 31 March I lent Henry a smock-frock, as I have done several times before. He generally returned the frock dirty, but this time it had been washed and ironed. There were some stains on it that were not there when I lent it. When I asked him, Henry told me that he had spilled some cider over it.”

Mr Ivey, a constable from Frome, in court produced the coat and smock, found in Henry Hillier’s house. He was the one who arrest Hillier on Monday 8 April.

William Bird Herapath
William Herapath examined Henry Hillier’s smock-frock, but found no traces of blood.

The clothes had been sent for examination to Mr William Herapath, a well-known analytical chemist, but he said he could find no trace of blood on it.

Wiliam Knapton, the Nunney constable, produced the knife, which he had received from the father of the deceased.

That suggests that it had clearly been taken out of the coffin before the funeral, once it became clear that Tom had not taken his own life.

The constable also produced Tom’s smock-frock, the sleeve and cuffs of which were perfectly free from blood.

The Bench nevertheless considered that the evidence against Hillier was sufficient to warrant their committing him for trial at the next Assize.

The second prisoner, Phillips, had been arrested a few days earlier mainly on the boy’s evidence. He was now released without charge.

Nevertheless the boy was committed to Shepton Mallet prison for safe custody until the court case continued.

Clotted hair

Judge’s carriage attending Assizes at Wells Town Hall, 1913 Photograph © Wells & Mendip Museum
Judge’s carriage attending Assizes at Wells Town Hall, 1913
Photograph © Wells & Mendip Museum

The next time the boy appeared in court, however, he stuck to his original story with breathtaking certainty and denied that anyone had told him what to say.

“The way the boy gave his evidence created quite a sensation in the court; it was a most shocking exhibition of depravity in a child so young,” one report stated.

The case continued in Crown Court in Wells on Monday 12 August 1850, before Mr Justice Coleridge. Messrs Phinn and Everett made the case for the prosecution and Henry Hillier was defended by Mr Edwards.

William Norris, a farm worker, produced a stake with hair on it, found in the shed. He told the court under oath: “There were three stakes laying near the hurdle, one of which had clotted hair on it. I cut some hair from the head of the deceased and compared it with the hair on the stake; they were of the same colour, and I cannot see any difference between them. The stake was found against the wall of the shed, about five or six yards from the body.”

Sheep rustlers

Salisbury and Winchester Journal - Saturday 16 October 1858
Salisbury and Winchester Journal – Saturday 16 October 1858

According to the Evening Mail report, one of the reasons the case attracted great interest was that the people involved were said to have belonged to a gang of sheep rustlers.

There was no evidence for this accusation, but the rumour doing the rounds was that Thomas had said that he was determined to warn the farmers about it. He was found murdered shortly afterwards.

The court heard that Henry had on previous occasions borrowed a smock-frock and it had always been returned dirty. This time, however, when asked to return it, Henry had said that wife was washing it. It was later returned to the owner clean and ironed.


The court case now moved on to what Henry’s motives could have been to commit murder. In order to connect Hillier with the murder, the prosecution claimed that he had on several occasions wished the victim dead, or had said that someone would kill him.

Maria Stride told the court under oath: “About two months back, when in Messrs Hoddinot’s brewhouse, I heard Henry Hillier say: ‘I wish Tom George was dead; that some one would kill him out of the way. I can’t bear the sight of him on the farm. And the Saturday after Tom died, he said he trembled so much that he could scarce stand since Tom George was killed.”

Several other witnesses were then examined as to threats by Henry Hillier. Thomas Knapton had known both Henry and Thomas well.

“Some time before the murder I saw Henry in his garden, and he said he wished Tom George was dead and stiff, out of his sight, for he could not bear to see him about.”

“About a month after that, I was again in the garden and Henry and I were talking about Tom George and how Henry had been terrifying him. He said that Tom George told him that he would as soon do himself a mischief as not.”


On another occasion he was said to have waved his fist in Tom George’s face, swearing that he would beat his brains out if the boy told any more about him.

Henry had constantly been cursing Thomas and swearing that he would beat him – and he would often go in search of him.

The Sunday after the murder Henry was claimed to have said to a man that he thought they had killed him “as they have Tom George”, as he hadn’t seen him so long.

After the case for the prosecution closed, Mr Justice Coleridge asked the jury to ignore completely the evidence of Henry Hillier’s young step son. He urged them to consider whether – without the boy’s statement – there was sufficient evidence to convict Hillier.

The jury returned a verdict of Not Guilty.

Wanting in his duty

The judge said that he fully agreed with the jury’s views. He added that even if the jury had found Henry Hillier guilty of murder on the basis of the boy’s witness statement, he could not have allowed the sentence to be carried out.

He pointed out that the case would had warranted a proper inquiry and prosecution. He blasted the unknown coroner who had led the initial inquiry at The George: “He was much wanting in his duty in not having called in medical testimony.

“If he had done so it would have been impossible for the jury to have left without returning a verdict of wilful murder against some unknown person. The outcome would have been very different; either Henry Hillier would not have gone on trial at all, or further evidence may have been brought against him.”

Either way, he thought that the coroner had been extremely wrong not to call for medical evidence in order to save money. He warned any other coroner that they could face prosecution in the Court of Queen’s Bench if they followed his example, and could face extremely unpleasant consequences.

Thomas George death (1850) 5
Daniel H. Ashford of Shepton Mallet is named as the coroner on Thomas George’s death certificate of 1850.

We don’t know whether the coroner who was to blame is that same one who signed the death certificate: Daniel H. Ashford in Shepton Mallet.

It was all a far cry from the jubilation with which Ashford’s election as county coroner was greeted in his home town of Castle Cary in 1828: “The mounted Yeomen rode in front of his carriage. At the entrance of the town, the horses were taken from the carriage, on a box of which Mr Ashford was seated, and the people themselves drew him through the streets amidst the acclamations of thousands.”

We get a good idea of the harsh realities of the job and why Ashford would not have called in medical evidence from his own report to a Parliamentary committee studying coroners’ expenses in 1839: “Length of district about 24 miles; breadth 16 miles, or thereabouts; my journeys average about 12 miles. By Act 1 Vict.c.68, dated 15 July 1838, coroners allowed 6s. 8d. extra on each inquest. Also compelled to pay all expenses out of pocket for holding inquests, and to be repaid at each quarter sessions, according to the following scale, fixed and allowed by the finance committee of the county: messenger for coroner 1 1/2d. per mile to and fro; constable to summon jury and witnesses, 1s. each juryman; room, when required, 5s.; medical witnesses, £1 1s. for evidence, and £1 1s. extra for post mortem examination when necessary.”

Somerset was not divided into districts, unlike other counties. It fell to the Overseers of the Poor to call in the nearest of the three coroners in the area. But when it came to paying for medical examinations, both the Overseers and the Magistrates often rejected any expense claim.


An editorial in The Times defended the coroner, however, and explained that the magistrates were so particular about refunding coroners’ expenses that it made coroners afraid to call in medical or other assistance.

“It has long been anticipated that in consequences of the difficulties thrown in the way of coroners by the magistrates with regard to the allowances of expenses, the administration of justice would be impeded, and now we have a glaring instance of it,” the paper concluded.

Reading Mercury, Saturday 20 April 1850
Reading Mercury, Saturday 20 April 1850


Bath Chronicle, Thursday 29 April 1858
Bath Chronicle, Thursday 29 April 1858

Ironically, it was Edmund Cockey – the Nunney medical officer who examined Tom’s body – who provided a typical account of stretched resources. As a medical officer he received a wage dictated by the Poor Law to look after the sick and elderly who received Poor Relief in Nunney and district.

He wrote letters complaining that he had ‘ridden or driven for 10.5 miles daily for 246 days’. He incurred the costs of a manservant and ‘horse and gig’, which cost him £87 6s on a salary of £62 a year.

Excluding drugs, tax and road tolls, Cockey’s list of expenses were already beyond his annual Poor Law wage: “during the winter, it is one horse’s work to take me through the district, so that after paying for medicine, gates, etc, in addition to wear and tear, you will see that very little can be left… no one can undertake the constant trouble and anxiety attending such an office with satisfaction.”

The result was in many cases that medical officers appointed assistants with no medical training whatsoever to visit the poor – once when they fell ill, again if a death certificate needed to be issued. What they actually wrote on the death certificate was often a guess, for they hadn’t seen the patient for weeks or months.

Elsewhere expenses caused problems too. When the Somerset Constabulary was established in 1856, two Superintendents (1st Class) were appointed from Staffordshire and Birmingham. Both resigned soon afterwards, however, because they could not fund the initial outlay for a horse and cart to meet their supervisory duties.

The aftermath

Mary George passed away ten years later, in March 1860 in Nunney, at the age of 57. Joseph and Mary had been married 28 years.

Four years later Joseph married Martha Rabbitts, in September 1864. He was 62 years old. Joseph George died in November 1877 in Nunney when he was 75 years old.

The former Red Lion Inn at the Butts in Frome
The former Red Lion Inn at the Butts in Frome

Acquittal wasn’t the end of the story for Henry Hillier. Whether he was actually guilty or not, suspicion followed him wherever he went for the rest of his life.

He may have been acquitted of poor Tom’s murder, but he did serve three months’ hard labour four years later, for stealing a coat and a pair of trousers from a 16-year-old lodger in Frome and taking them to the pawnbroker’s.

The Frome Times of Wednesday 31 July 1861 – 11 years after the murder – reported that Henry Hillier appeared in court for using threatening language towards a man called William Davis.

Davis told the court: “Last Saturday evening I and a neighbour were in the Red Lion Inn, at the Butts (in Frome), and while we were there the defendant [Hillier] came in, and I offered to give them a toast, a part of which was: ‘Any man who has ever done a foul deed, may he be found out before he dies’.”

“When we left the public house defendant called me a thief and a robber, and made use of very disgusting language. Defendant also brought up about the Nunney murder, and I said to him: ‘If thee didst kill the man at Nunney, I hope thee will never kill me.’ And he replied: ‘Take care, for thee dost not know.'”

Henry Hillier then made a long and rambling statement, trying to explain that Davis had greatly upset him. The Bench said that although it was well known that Hillier was suspected of the Nunney murder, and had been tried for it, he was not proved guilty. He should therefore be considered innocent. Since it was obvious that Davis had been taunting Hillier, they dismissed the case.

Slightly deranged

Three years later a Petty Sessions report in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal of Saturday 17 September 1864 described him as ‘slightly deranged’. The reason for the court appearance was that Hillier claimed to have been assaulted by John Price, a gardener, at the Butts in Frome. It was noted in court that Hillier had been acquitted several years earlier.

Wells Journal - Saturday 20 August 1853
Wells Journal, Saturday 20 August 1853

Two months later, on Wednesday 2 November 1864, the Frome Times reported another assault on Henry Hillier.

Hillier’s face was described as being “in a dreadful state” after a dispute with Samuel Button, a quarryman. As in the first case, witnesses swore that they never saw any assault on Hillier, but couldn’t explain how Hillier was injured.

“The Bench thought it a disgraceful case” and fined Button £1. Unable to pay, Samuel Button was sentenced to 14 days of hard labour instead.

Hillier fathered several children that died in childhood – aged 1, 2, 13 and 14. He was described as “Labourer Deceased” on his daughter Jane’s marriage certificate of 24 December 1883.

Western Gazette, Friday 19 July 1872
Interesting: Frank George and Henry Hillier were drinking together at the Crown Inn in 1872. Frank was Thomas George’s younger brother. It seemed that the victim’s relatives were bearing no grudge against Hillier.
Western Gazette, Friday 19 July 1872

We are indebted to Sue Robinson and Tania White for their help in researching the history of the George family. Thomas George was Tania’s great uncle three times removed.